A Hard Act to Follow

Finale's amazing food deserves a standing ovation -- and the digs ain't bad, either

May 18, 2005 at 4:00 am
"I bet the bathrooms are really nice," Patrick murmured as we strode up the low-slung concrete steps that led from the sidewalk to the outdoor terrace at Finale. And they were: gleaming clean, a pair of pewter-looking Kohler taps stemming out strikingly from the vanity mirror, deep-set matching basins built into the countertop below, and the air so infused with vanilla that I was tempted to think the commodes were being prepped by a sous chef for a Marcel Duchamp-inspired dessert special.

That Patrick would have deduced as much about the loos based on a first glimpse at the al fresco four-tops isn't surprising. Finale is, after all, downtown Clayton's latest high-end restaurant, and it did seem like many pairs of Botoxed, mascaraed, glycolic-peeled eyes were cast down upon us as we marched our way up the two-flight staircase. When we reached the top and encountered a man in a nice suit, I didn't hesitate to ask him, "Are you the maitre d'?" even though a maitre d' is an endangered species in today's restaurant ranks -- I can't recall the last time I ate somewhere that had a bona fide maitre d' as opposed to (or in addition to) a podium-tethered hourly wage hostess.

"I'm actually a managing partner in the business," James Martin explained when I got him on the phone a week later. A former manager at Brio Tuscan Grille in Frontenac, Martin is one of several bigwigs who've undertaken the audacious gamble (to the tune of a $3 million build-out) that is Finale, a 130-seat cabaret-style nightclub adjacent to a 78-seat restaurant on the second floor of the Clayton on the Park luxury highrise -- the tony digs last occupied by David Slay and Ozzie Smith's celebriteria Smith & Slay's. Martin's collaborators are Clayton on the Park owner Bob Saur, Contemporary Productions doyen Steve Schankman (who's overseeing the club operation) and, running the restaurant, Ted Geiger, owner of nearby yuppie haunt J. Buck's and Galleria pasta emporium Fuzio.

Corporate résumés brimming with scene-over-sustenance credentials? The ghost of glamour puss David Slay? A price tag of three mil? And a nightclub shilling "A Tribute to Luther Vandross" and Louie Anderson at $40 a ticket? Unmistakable signs, one and all, that Finale is just another widget in the assembly-line output of the nabe's flashy-in-the-pan restaurants. I was expecting the bathroom to be the high point of the meal.

Except it wasn't. The meal was the high point of the meal -- a start-to-finish boffo procession of dishes, put forth with impeccable service. Finale is warm, genuine, effortless and topnotch, and for a spanking-new restaurant, already very much in its own skin.

The roasted veal rib eye is executive chef Chris Holmdahl's favorite entrée. Mine too. It's a bone-in chop that's pan-roasted and plated with a multidimensional mélange of green lentils, sage, carrots, shallots, celery, onion, roasted garlic and red wine and finished with a truffle butter. With meat that threatens to shimmy right off the bone if a steak knife so much as wags a blade in its direction, this could pass for osso buco. The kicker is a trifle of wit -- the sort of touch that elevates Finale's menu above standard New American fare: around the bone, an O-ring of baked Parmesan cheese that tasted like Cheez-Its.

A pork tenderloin, snugly wrapped in pancetta, is another pan-roasted triumph. The piquant, salty sheath plays nicely against the handful of accompanying wedge-cut "polenta fries," whose mushy-good innards are whipped with mascarpone cheese, then encased in a spiced skin. North Atlantic cod fillets, breaded, pan-fried and served with creamed spinach, maple-glazed carrots and horseradish-tempered mashed potatoes -- a brilliant, Masterpiece Theater-like take on fish and chips -- separates from itself in firm, flaky sheets. (A slightly more traditional fish-and-chips is offered on the lunch menu: catfish, subbing for cod, served on thin slices of sourdough.)

Cobb salad, offered as an appetizer at dinner or main course at lunch, is hardly done classic. No scallions, no watercress, no crumbled blue cheese, no vinaigrette, and it ain't chopped -- but it is handsome, featuring luscious wedges of avocado, triangles of soft Cheddar and chunks of roasted chicken with enough integrity to pass for turkey. A poached lobster appetizer, generously portioned (an entire claw and half a tail on each plate), is shown off in spiffy fashion on a bed of slaw-like shaved fennel hash and, beneath that, a Jerusalem artichoke salad.

In short, nobody's looking to reinvent cuisine here. The menu is dominated by New American gimmes -- grilled free-range chicken, seared yellowfin tuna, pan-seared duck breast, etc. "We wanted this to be something of a foodie destination," explains Jeff Constance, who oversees all three of Ted Geiger's restaurant kitchens. "I wanted to do some things that weren't too far out-there, to make sure people understood us before we try to push the envelope more. You hope you can have some signature items, but that's up to your customers to decide, not you."

Adds Geiger: "We knew this couldn't be just another bar and restaurant. We could have just looked at the nightclub patrons as a captive audience for the restaurant side, since many of them would naturally eat there for a pre-show dinner. But we didn't want to just throw food at people. We wanted to do more than that."

Finale might best be summed up by one of its desserts, a smashing trompe l'oeil in-joke called toasted chocolate ravioli. Dough spiked with cocoa powder is shaped into T-rav shells, filled with milk-chocolate ganache and sprinkled with Cocoa Krispies "bread crumbs." Raspberry sauce, white chocolate flecks and mint-leaf shavings stand in for marinara, Parmesan, and oregano, respectively. It's both delicious and hilarious.

"There aren't enough stalls in the bathroom," I heard a woman say to her friend while they waited in the ladies' room as I was note-taking in one of the lavatory's two stalls. "That's my only complaint."

Mine too.